SCENE 1: PRE-CREDITS
Exterior: Quiet, sleepy, circular street surrounding Anderson Grove.
Interior: The Lanska-Wener living room, aglow by television light.
Time: Early August, definitely after midnight.
Jessica, on the couch: Hey, what’s the name again of that favorite movie of yours you wanted to show me?
Ben, standing, sipping tea: Which one? [He lets out a slight, knowing chuckle.]
Jessica: Fair point. [Points at Ben, improvises teasing “because it’s you” joke.] You know, the Scottish one you’re always telling me about.
Ben: Oh. Local Hero. But we can’t watch that yet.
Jessica: [Cocks head, eyes indicating “go on ...”]
Ben: So ... that’s one of those movies from the ’80s that should look really beautiful, but actually it’s always looked pretty terrible, even on blu-ray. But [way overdoing it] FINALLY a Criterion edition is coming out, the day before my birthday ...
Jessica: The day before your birthday ...
Ben: Right, the day before my birthday ...
Jessica: [Nods with a touch of both “hmmm” and “ah-ha.”]
Ben: You know ...
Jessica: [Already a step ahead.] Yes?
Ben: All I’d really like to do for this “big birthday” is just show you that movie as soon as it arrives.
Jessica: I assumed as much.
Ben: Maybe we could just make a weekend of it ...
Jessica: Sure, yeah ... I see where you’re go-
Ben: And I’ll pick a bunch of movies I really want to screen for you ...
Jessica: Wait ... a bunch?
Ben: Well ... some.
Jessica: A bunch?
Ben: A few.
Jessica: [Resignedly.] A bunch.
Ben: Maybe a bunch.
Ben: And then we can just relax.
Ben: You know ...
Jessica: [Again, several steps ahead.] Yes, I do.
Ben: If we wanted to ...
Jessica: This could be the perfect way to have what you want for your 50th birthday.
Jessica: And deter anyone from throwing you some sort of party you don’t want.
Ben: Yes! One brain.
Jessica: [Smiles] One brain.
[Long pause, during which at least 50 film posters flicker through Ben’s mind.]
Ben: But how do I make this into something I want?
Jessica: I don’t know. You’ll figure that out.
[Another long pause, during which another 50 film posters rush out of his memory bank.]
Ben: You know what could be fun ...
Jessica: [Returning her attention to DuckTales.] Mmm-hmm ...
Ben: I could pick a bunch of movies ...
Jessica: [Checking the guide to see when the next episode will record.] A bunch, huh?
Ben: ... and turn it into my own little film festival!
Less than 24 hours later, BenFest had been born.
But let’s usher in this inaugural monstrosity with its proper name: The Benjamin (A) Wener 50th Anniversary Film Festival, taking place once again and for the first time ever in AnaYorbaHeim LindaHills, Cali-For-Nigh-Yay.
Previews begin Sept. 18 at the LanskaLight Wenerama Dome, aka the space where the above scene took place. Proper festivities get underway Sept. 20 with our Jury Vote screening, also held at the Dome, where the evening’s cinematic fare will be the top pick(s) as chosen by would-be attendees of this mostly imaginary Sundance — like you!
Opening Night arrives Sept. 21, when Barbra Streisand’s Oscar-winning performance in William Wyler’s Funny Girl will light up both movie houses, upstairs and downstairs, at Philman’s Jewish Theatre, newly established at my parents’ place in Anaheim Hills.
BenFest 2019 then closes with a onetime special event, Hedwig’s Private Urgh!, which brings this self-styled Ebertfest back to the Wenerama Dome on my actual birthday, Sept. 25. Who is Hedwig? What in the world is a Private Urgh!? And who might Bonnie Waters be? All very good questions. To discover the very good answers, you’ll first need to find out the very good password, else you’ll never get into that party.
Uh ... wow. That’s just ... super. Happy birthday. But Ben, this is pretty short notice. I don’t know that I can really be there for ...
No problem! Really wasn’t expecting you to come!
That’s why this is all out here on the Instawebz and things, so that I can share this 50th birthday milestone with whoever cares to acknowledge it, yet leave absolutely no one compelled to throw or attend any sort of ballyhoo about it.
Oh ... ok, cool. Sounds nice. So ... what’ve you got here .... holy crap, 25 films?! Dude, I’m not watching 25 films.
Of course you aren’t. You probably won’t even watch one of them.
All I’m asking is to humor me enough to indulge one small, hopefully enjoyable task:
Let’s call it a birthday present — and then if you do manage to make it to any actual events, you shouldn’t think twice about not bringing a gift, for they are discouraged. Your presence, online or in person or both, is your present. It can take as little as a few minutes ... or you can journey down the rabbit hole and discover all manner of trivial and/or titillating and/or traumatic details about yours truly.
OK, that’s ... interesting ... and manageable. But 25? Really? And future picks?
That’s just extra fun for the three of you who will really get into this. But let me break down how this works by introducing you to the five wings of BenFest, each consisting of five films centered on a given theme.
You cannot be serious.
Oh, but I am! There’s:
1969 @ the Dome — This foundational column of BenFest encompasses four types of more-or-less date-stamped movies: 1) those literally released within that calendar year; 2) those released within the previous 1-2 years that might still have been playing in theaters and/or having an ongoing cultural impact in ’69 (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby); 3) movies, preferably documentaries, made in later years that nonetheless capture or encapsulate events specifically from ’69; and 4) any films that came out during the first year of my life, which allows me room to edge close to the end of 1970 for choices.
Some films that I wanted to qualify for my final five in this category needed that extra assist: If...., for instance, came out in December ’68 in the UK, but debuted in NYC in March ’69, then played Cannes in May. Another title, Luis Buñuel’s surreal skewering of religion presented as hobo road picture, The Milky Way, first played in Italy in February/March ’69 but didn’t arrive in the States until spring 1970.
Right, I know: Only I care about these rules and boundaries. But I made ’em up anyway, so hear me out.
Sonic Celluloid — This noisier, more rambunctious wing consists of all manner of music-related films that matter to me. Not just concert flicks and documentaries but also musicals, biopics of significant figures and scenes, great films that have a distinctly musical backdrop or setting — the scope is wide, enabling me to pull together different tendrils of inspiration from throughout my past.
You really do have too much time on your hands.
Now, the third section is called Jews @ Philman’s Jewish Theatre.
That sounds offensive.
It isn’t meant to be. It’s intended as an ongoing survey of Jewish heritage and culture as depicted on film, as well as something of a Hall of Fame for Jewish stars, character actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, lesser-knowns — all of it, tatteleh, as filtered through Wener family history.
As BenFest began to take shape, the idea of showing a movie or two at my folks’ house grew highly appealing. There’s an over-the-garage area there that we always called the Bonus Room, a large space where we used to shoot pool (in the ’70s), rehearse bands (’80s/’90s), host out-of-towners (’00s) and raise kids (’10s). But last year the Bonus Room was radically remodeled: one half became my nephew Gabriel’s bedroom, while the other half morphed into the best damn screening room this extended family has ever had, complete with a giant motorized drop-down screen, killer sound and plush recliners. Of course I’d want some of BenFest to occur there!
So, in the spirit of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, I have dubbed this cinephile’s dream space Philman’s Jewish Theatre, with the intention that as the years roll on, many of the movies programmed for this and future BenFests will play there, kids in tow.
Allow me to answer a question that might be brewing about now ...
I don’t have any questions.
That’s correct: There is in fact plenty of potential overlap as you ponder these five different subheadings. All the more reason for a 5x5 film-festival construct, don’t ya think? More places to spotlight more movies! Woodstock, for instance: Michael Wadleigh’s full four-hour landmark is about a distinctly 1969 event, and it’s a film that more or less came out during my first year of existence — so it could land there, or it could land in Sonic Celluloid, or my Pantheon pile ...
What’s the Pantheon pile?
See, you do have questions!
The Pantheon is my own little wing of personal favorites, some widely beloved, others neglected by most but treasured by me. Then there are those selections that are Presented in SAMX. You know, instead of IMAX? Get it?
I wish you could see how far back my eyes are rolling right now.
Me too! But these SAMX selections — films from then and now that I greatly hope Sam sees by the time he reaches 18 — are actually some of the best in this mix. Seriously: Raiders of the Lost Ark AND The Sting AND Bringing Up Baby?!? What a Sophie’s Choice! (Sorry, Meryl fans, not this year at Philman’s.) And I ask you: At what other film festival are you ever going to see Meatballs on the menu?
You know you’re talking to yourself, right? Are we done here?
Almost. Just one last thing: Please RANK your Top 5, with your top pick at the ... er, top. This will be a weighted vote: your top choice gets 5 points, your runner-up gets 4, and so on. Voting ends Sept. 20 at 7:45 p.m., with the first screening to begin at 8. In the event of a tie, I will either pick between the winners, or we will show a double-feature.
Because it’s my festival. Got my name on it and everything.
You’re really a piece of work, Wener. Do you even realize how long this introduction is?
Thank you very much for reading, and maybe participating. You’re very pretty.
[Extra thanks to Mila Dean, Katelyn Lamb and J. Patrick Ohlde for serving as soundboards and providing beneficial feedback throughout this project. Extra special thanks to Sam Wener, creator and principal operator of BenFest’s YouTube channel. Very extra special thanks to Aaron Scott, who took this fragmented 50th-birthday book I apparently wrote and turned it into this site that I will treasure always; so much gratitude, brother. Mostest very extra special thanks: Jessica Lanska, for whom I played Wilco’s “Please Be Patient with Me” during our first one-state-apart summer together, and who has been beyond that ever since.]